It would be a lie to say I’ve never driven a race car. I’ve driven a Porsche—it was an exhilarating experience, but nothing you’d compare to driving in a videogame. They’re two completely disparate experiences, and while driving an actual race car is miles and miles beyond the experience of controlling one on the PS3, it does nothing to lessen the enjoyment of the latter. For one, you don’t have to worry about running people over or slamming into a wall when you’re behind a TV. Unless you’re playing videogames in a car, which is something I’d advise against.
My favorite part about driving the Porsche was how everyone turned their heads to look at it as I drove past. That's an experience no videogame could ever replicate.
My first racing game (as an aside, this isn't going to read like a high school summer break essay on "my first trip to Disneyland, by Ian, age 9") was one of the Test Drive games by Accolade. I can't recall which one—it was probably the second one—but the biggest joy for me was simply racing around the wide open world, or what consisted of a "wide open world" back in the days before 3D graphics were a thing. Racing itself wasn't on my mind, and it was probably for the best as I wasn't really into racing games before Wacky Wheels—a Mario Kart-like racer—came along. In any case, it set the stage for the kind of racing games I'd enjoy.
Along the way, I'd found a variety of games to replicate that open world driving experience, including Interstate 76 and a few others, but my heart was always tempered by my first experience. It wasn't until Burnout Paradise, a true open world racer; and Driver: San Francisco, that I'd managed to rekindle the feeling I first experienced with Test Drive. To an extent, GTA titles and the recently released Sleeping Dogs both provided adequate, but not truly great racing experiences.
This brings me to Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Developed by Criterion, the makers of Burnout Paradise, Most Wanted is exactly the followup I was expecting from them. It may not entirely please anyone who wants a "core" Need for Speed experience with leveling up your cars and unlocking gaudy new NOS and Kenwood decals to plaster your vehicle with, but it takes all the parts that matter—the racing—and gives you an open world setting to drive around in.
Playing the previous Need for Speed games made me feel like I was Paul Walker in one of the The Fast and The Furious movies. They weren't bad experiences, but there's only so far I could go with aftermarket racing culture before I got completely sick of hearing "Get Low." Obnoxious music aside, they were solid arcade racing games, and those qualities are retained in Most Wanted.
Most Wanted takes the solid formulae of two different series—Burnout and Need for Speed—and combines them into a solid racer with an open world wonderland.
Gone is the need to level up to try out new vehicles, as you can drive any car you want so long as you find them—and they're scattered all throughout the city and its limits. If you like a particular car, you can unlock improvements and physical modifications for it simply by performing races and spending a lot of time in the vehicle. That's not to say that achievement hunters and completionists won't have much to do. As a matter of fact, the game makes it a lot easier to accomplish your goals by allowing you to progress through different vehicles in whatever manner you choose instead of locking you into a linear leveling system. And if you just want to drive around and get the most out of the vehicle you like, you can do that too—just by sticking with the car you drive.
I can say that Most Wanted successfully allowed me to rekindle that feeling of awe I had while driving around in Test Drive—more so than any other open world racer has managed. And when I get bored of driving around, there's races to partake in and things to do—all easily accessible thanks to the d-pad controlled "EasyDrive" system.
Present in Most Wanted is the thrill of the chase when you’re pursued by cops in and out of missions. Drive by one of them a little too quickly or engage them head on and they’ll try to run you down you until you’re out of pursuit distance. It’s a mechanic that could be pretty annoying if the developers didn’t tune it in such a way that stopping your car alone isn’t enough for them to arrest you. You can elude arrest simply by driving on—even after you’ve reset from a wreck. If you’re tired from the chase, all you have to do is let the cops catch up to you and stop your vehicle for a few seconds.
My only issue with the game is that it lacks a dashboard and steering view. A few of the other titles in the series have it, and it does a lot to offer the feeling of being behind a wheel.
It’s been a bumpy road with the Need for Speed series as of late, especially with the lackluster release of The Run last year. Most Wanted’s a much smoother ride, and hopefully the kind of game that the series will continue to drive on.